"You can't be the best you can be if you can't be yourself."

This was the line originally given to me for the "You Can Play" video I was participating in for the University of Mary Washington's Athletic Department. Although I swapped lines for the final cut of the video, the message still stuck with me and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I never felt better with myself than after I came out as gay.

Coming out couldn't have been more awkward for me. The summer before my senior year of high school in Virginia, I was with my best friend, Katie Fitzjarrald, at Kohl's. I jokingly prodded her with my elbow and asked, "Do you think that guy is cute?" as I pointed towards an employee who was walking by us. "Yeah, you should go get his number," she replied.

At that instance, I was just joking around. We kept bantering back and forth, laughing and teasing each other. However, later that same evening, it started to bother me. She hadn't reacted out of the ordinary, yet I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that maybe I let something slip.

For the longest time, I wrestled with the idea of being gay. I first encountered the term back in 2008. I was in sixth grade when a peer asked me if I was "gay." Being the naive, non-fluent, recent transfer that I was, I answered yes. Having grown up in Puerto Rico for the first 11 years of my life, I hadn't had much exposure to anything blatantly labeled as "homosexual."

They never spoke of it in at my private Catholic school and it was never really discussed anywhere, so I didn't even know that it existed. After the my sixth-grade classmates burst into laughter, I asked what was wrong. Someone finally managed to suppress their chortling and explained the definition of the word. Where I thought they had meant "gay" as in jovial, happy, etc., they had given me a new meaning, one that I had never heard and immediately rejected.

As the years went on I kept hearing it directed at me, yet I still couldn't put two and two together. I thought to myself, "There's no way I'm gay. I hate guys. They're annoying." I didn't want to add to the bullying I was already receiving. Middle schoolers weren't very fond of my accent and lisp with which I spoke English. They thought I was dumb, and they weren't kind to how I looked. So instead of fighting, I simply ignored every insult directed at me.

I kept to myself and would spend all day reading. Even in the hallways, I would walk and read at the same time. I had more important things to deal with: my mom had recently had her third divorce, I was the caretaker for my siblings, and I was plagued with obesity and a stress-eating disorder. My sexuality wasn't a priority at the time. I made myself believe, "You are straight. You know you like girls." Instead, I focused on getting good grades, improving my English, caring for my family, and swimming.

During high school, things started to change. Before freshman year started, I was still struggling with my size. I was around 230 pounds and wearing size 40 jeans. I was still a quiet, shy kid who didn't talk to anybody unless spoken to. I would spend lunch periods in my English classroom, eating by myself and reading. But most of that changed once high school swim season came around.

Very quickly I made my presence known in the pool and lost weight. From the first week, I was already competing against the seniors and had a couple of first place victories under my belt. Later on in the season, I was part of the winning relays and had won first place in the 100-meter fly at our conference meet. I was the only freshman who made the state team and the only male with individual events at the state meet. I grew more confident with myself and started to open up to people.

But as I started to make friends and change into a new social group, the question of my sexuality arose again. This time around I had no excuses for putting it off. I was constantly bombarded with the question and was even labeled as a "metrosexual" because of the way I dressed. I grew conscious that I was noticing guys more than I did girls. I started questioning myself, and for a period of time I told myself I was bisexual. I still believed I liked girls and I refused to allow myself to "be" gay. I simply thought that guys were nice to look at, but I'd never date them.

It wasn't until halfway through the first semester of senior year that it finally hit me. Due to a series of rather curious events, I ended up spending the weekend with my best friend and swimmate, Brad Allison, for a swim meet. The Friday before we left for the meet, Brad had taken me to a football game for his school. At the game, I met a swimmer whom I'd often seen at meets, but we didn't know each other personally. We talked for most of the game and before I left we exchanged numbers. Talking with him solidified the answer that I had been struggling with for so long: I was gay.

The first person I told, trying to pass it off as a joke, had been my best friend, Katie. The next one to know was my mom. She was incredibly supportive, as was the rest of my family. "Para el gusto se hicieron los colores, mi amor" she told me. ("Colors were made for every preference.") My grandma, who once made a distasteful comment about a gay couple on TV, told me, "I'll always love you, no matter what."

At first I told only a few select people. But as I told more and more people, the news spread around the school like wildfire. I ran into a lot of different responses, but all were positive. My closer friends told me how happy they were for me. My acquaintances would run up to me and ask me, "Wait you're gay?" and I would just laugh it off and say "Yeah." They would most often congratulate me and then go on to talk to me about a new boy, or how did I know or what my family thought. I would just smile, but in reality I was very nervous.

My high school teammates didn't react any differently. Even in the locker room we never had any issues. We still hung out after meets together and had our traditional Mohawk haircut party before heading off to states. My sexuality didn't make me any different to them. In the pool, our opinions of somebody were based off their work in the pool, not their own personal preferences.

Coming out was a crucial turning point in my life. I felt like I was finally showing people the real me. However, it wasn't just important to me. Without even realizing it, by coming out I had helped others who were in the same boat. This past summer I had received a message from a mom of the girls on the swim team: "You are BEAUTIFUL inside & out!!! Thank you for coming out & being so brave. You have helped [my daughter] more than you will ever know." From that day on, I realized that coming out wasn't something that affected just me, but everyone around me as well.

It's been a year and a half now since I've come out, and it has been a great time. My team at the University of Mary Washington is very accepting of my sexuality. While I didn't come out to them directly, many of them found out indirectly, mainly from comments that I made. For example, the freshman were walking together after lunch one day. We were chatting about who-knows-what when all of a sudden of the guys asked, "Wait Ricardo you're gay?" The whole group laughed mostly because it's been about four months since we've been together as a team and he had just found out.

With this team, I've never felt more at home. Everybody seemed to be comfortable with it, which in turn helped me grow comfortable with it as well. We treated each other like a family. I no longer felt the discomfort of talking about my love life or answering their questions. Their support pushed me to excel as an individual in the pool.

At our conference meet, I got second place in both the 100 free and 200 IM, third place in the 200 free (all of which were personal best times), and I was a part of four first-place relays. I was named the Rookie of the Year for the meet and our teams won the Capital Athletic Conference championships. At our team banquet, I became the first freshman to receive the Eagle Award, which is given to the swimmer who best reflects what it means to be a UMW Eagle. If it weren't for my tight-knit team, my open community and loving family, I don't think I would have ever made it as far as I have. Their unconditional love and acceptance encouraged me to grow as an individual.

I have been lucky enough to have had such an accepting community. However, I know that not everyone out there will have the same reaction that my team did. I hope that by coming out to a larger public, I can help reverse the stigma and stereotypes that exist about homosexuality and provide guidance to anyone who is struggling with their own sexuality.

Ricardo Vazquez, 18, is a freshman at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is majoring in Biology and plans on pursuing medical school after he graduates. He is a free/fly/IM swimmer on the men's swim team. He can be reached via email at [email protected] and on Facebook and Instagram.